Thursday, May 25, 2006

My Life as a (Faux)Geek

Some days I realize I'm a geek, or at least a faux-geek. Yesterday was one of those days, and the realization leaked over into today. The occasion for this particular realization was that yesterday I got my student copy of my new bibliographical software program (Endnote), and I got inordinately excited about it. (To be fair, at least I'm surrounded by other academics, so I found other people who thought it was cool too. Plus, I wouldn't be quite as excited about it had I not gotten my copy only a few days after my thesis proposal was officially accepted.)

The thing is that it is a wonderful program for a girl embarking on a 80-100 page M.A. thesis with 50 or more books and articles that I'll be trying to read, keep straight, and potentially quote. What it does is allow you to search for, then download reference information for books, articles, etc. from various databases and library sites. When researching, you can save your notes for the reference in with the rest of the information. Then as you type your paper in Word and add a quotation, it allows you to easily choose the source from the list and formats the citation information and works cited information for you in whatever format you need it in.

Anyway, I'm told that it takes a little time to learn up front, but is indispensible for a large project like a thesis or dissertation. We'll see. If it does half of what it promises, it will help with my thesis. Together with my other favorite organization software tool, StickyBrain (which allows me to right-click and save and organize notes and articles from the Web), I should have to spend a lot less time losing things, then re-researching them later. (Provided, of course, I take notes efficiently the first time from those pesky print sources.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

The "Not Real" vs. the "Real" Part 2--Dishes, Laundry, and Such

Seeing as how I've just talked about how I need to continue to work on the balance between "not real" and the "real," I thought it would be highly appropriate to note that "not real," virtual, or abstract, activities--including intellectual ones--often don't significantly help one to complete "real" chores, something that monastics have been balancing for centuries and Thoreau also addressed within Walden.

To illustrate, some examples of abstract, virtual, or activities that some might otherwise class as "not real" (though some of them are actually my job at the moment): spending much time in thought and on the computer completing class-work-related activities, and at home with the TV on, whether watching a DVD or something else, or with it off and nourishing my creativity with a good book, researching venues to which to send my novel, working on new short story and novel ideas.

Some examples of "real" activities that I cannot make my cats do while I'm working on the above: washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, filing those last few boxes from last summer's move (mostly filled with real papers I haven't gotten around to going through, but don't want to outright throw out).

Were I to figure out how to train my cats to handle these and other chores, I'm sure I would have much more time to work on both my "abstract" and "real" communication tasks, as well as the reality-based long walks I'd love to take more of now that it's gorgeous weather out. I'd love to take any suggestions for completing these activities, either virtually or via cat-labor. If not, I'm sure I'll get to more of them soon now that my West Wing marathon has come to an end.

(Side note: I did dispose of the paper-filing problem this weekend by lining the boxes up, draping a sheet over them, and calling them a coffee-table. It makes a good place to put my laptop, and the cats like to sit on it. So let no one say I accomplished nothing real and useful while in graduate school. I left out the case of paper for sending out novel manuscripts, however, so I could continue to trip over it until the book gets accepted somewhere.)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The "Not Real" vs. the "Real"

I was telling someone tonight that I like to turn on The Lord of the Rings while I'm writing a paper, because then it's there for me to pop in and out of and usually lasts about as long as it takes to write a draft of a ten-page paper. In the conversation that followed, she mentioned that she supposed TV could be a kind of company in a way. Since then, I've been thinking about the potentially good and potentially bad aspects of that.

First, the potentially bad. There's something that seems a bit anti-social (in the standard colloquial sense of the word as opposed to the psychological sense of the word) about the act. After all, if I didn't live alone and had to interact with a real person during my paper-writing, I would have to deal with a real person who might not distract me when I wanted to be distracted. They might interrupt me right in the middle of a thought. And that might be good for me. Make me less self-centered about the sanctity of "my" time.

There is definitely something to be said for this angle. I would hate to "grow up" to be one of those curmudgeonly people whose life was built around things and people who didn't take me out of myself and my needs at times. As Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker, writes about the culture's paradigm shift from caskets surrounded by family, friends, and co-religionists to golf bag-themed caskets surrounded by co-hobbyists: "we are...required, as [Robert Pogue Harrison] insists, to choose 'an allegiance--either to the posthuman, the virtual, and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their cosmic densities.'" There is something that seems wrong about abandoning human community for the TV.

But then, I can't believe that it's all gloom and doom for my movie-watching "company." After all, seeking company in the company of characters in a DVD is no worse than seeking it in books or any other form of story, or the "not real." Including the characters that occasionally find their home in my fiction-writer's (admittedly odd) brain and leak their way out onto paper. As Margaret Atwood writes in her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, "not real can tell us about real." Through story, through these odd unreal characters that jump into our brains from books and movies and TV shows, we can learn about who we are in relation to other very real people and things.

Children's writer Katherine Paterson, in an article called "Making Meaning," balances both of the aspects of this question--interaction on a "virtual" and a "real" level--nicely: "As a writer I can try to make meaning for...children through the words of a story, but I can't stop there, thinking that my task as meaning-maker is done. Nor, I dare say, can you. It is up to each of us not simply to write the words [or take in the story], but to be the word of hope, of faith, of love."

Although she was saying that her role as a writer should be balanced with the role of the in-person teacher/mentor/parent in children's lives, her point seems to be a valid one for the current discussion as well. Both the "not real"--or the virtual, or the symbolic--and the "real" are important, and if we live in either of them exclusively, we risk losing something in our lives. So I think I'll continue to watch the Lord of the Rings during paper-writing times, but I'll also continue to, from time to time, write in places where people can interrupt me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hilarious Onion Story

Heroic Computer Dies To Save World From Master's Thesis: This article, which I found hilarious--admittedly at least partly because I'm about to hand in my M.A. thesis proposal--gives a twist to the idea that technology makes it easy for anyone to write lots of material.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Is the Visual Overcoming the Written?

“We recognize that the use of image and icon is fast displacing the written word as the dominant communication system of our culture—a trend easily identified when Nike can strip its name from the swoosh icon without losing an ounce of brand recognition or equity—but we fail to perceive what the new iconic symbol system truly has the capacity to do and undo.” –Shane A. Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Media

I understand Hipps' point about understanding what icons can and can't do, but I disagree with him on two points: (1) that image is a stronger communication system than the written word in today's culture, and (2) that the power of image and icon is something remotely new.

As to the first point, with email and IM and blogging and all the rest, many of us are writing and reading more than ever before. It doesn't mean we're writing and reading high quality material all the time, but we're writing and reading a lot. Image and icon are strengthening, but that doesn't mean they're overcoming writing. And that's important to remember.

Which brings me to my second point. Image and icons have always had power. In fact, before we had the printed word, most people only ever learned through image, icon and auditorially. So the Nike swoosh without the words is hardly a new concept--in fact, it's a very old one. And the thing is that I'm not sure the power of image has lessened over the years. Even in writing, we use imagery all the time. And although that's different from actual images, it evokes them in our heads.

So images have been around for a long time. And writing isn't going away. That doesn't invalidate Hipps' point, but it certainly raises questions in my head about it. I do wonder what new things are happening with icons, images, and the written word--I think it's quite possible new things might be happening with them. But the media themselves are hundreds of years old, and neither of them is going away.